Spend 20 unforgettable days driving around one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world: New Zealand's South Island. You'll begin the loop in Christchurch, then continue to scenic Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki for stargazing and outdoor adventures. Visit the Scottish-style city of Dunedin before moving on to the island of Te Anau. Enjoy urban sightseeing in adrenaline-fueled Queenstown before exploring glaciers and hot springs on the island's north end to finish the itinerary.


  • Experience the top attractions in cool cities like Christchurch and Queenstown
  • Boat through dark caves with a guide to see glowworms in their natural habitat
  • Cruise around Lake Wānaka and choose your own outdoor activities in the area
  • Soak in natural hot pools in Hanmer Springs on your last full day of the trip

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Christchurch, Explore Christchurch
Day 2 Free Day in Christchurch Christchurch
Day 3 Drive to Lake Tekapo, Explore Lake Tekapo
Day 4 Free Day in Lake Tekapo Lake Tekapo
Day 5 Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook Village, Explore Aoraki / Mount Cook Village
Day 6 Drive to Dunedin, Explore Dunedin
Day 7 Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour & Penguin Place Dunedin
Day 8 Drive to Te Anau Island, Explore Te Anau
Day 9 Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Cruise Te Anau
Day 10 Explore the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, Drive to Queenstown Queenstown 
Day 11 Discover Queenstown, Cruise & Farm Tour Queenstown 
Day 12 Free Day in Queenstown  Queenstown 
Day 13 Drive to Wānaka, Explore Wānaka
Day 14 Lake Wānaka Cruise & Island Nature Walk Wānaka
Day 15 Discover Mount Aspiring National Park Wānaka
Day 16 Free Day in Wānaka Wānaka
Day 17 Drive to Franz Josef / Waiau Glacier, Explore Franz Josef/Waiau Glacier
Day 18 Drive to Punakaiki, Explore Punakaiki
Day 19 Drive to Hanmer Springs, Explore Hanmer Springs
Day 20 Drive to Christchurch, Depart New Zealand  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch, Explore

Walk around Christchurch's charming streets
Welcome to New Zealand's South Island! Upon arrival in Christchurch, the country's second-largest metropolis, pick up your rental car and head to your hotel. Nicknamed the "Garden City," Christchurch is known for its green spaces like Hagley Park and the Botanical Gardens, both great places to go for a stroll. If you're interested in history, take a boat tour down the Avon River / Ōtākaro led by guides in Edwardian costume, or ride one of the city's 19th-century trams past Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum. Get a good night's rest after a big day of travel!

Day 2: Free Day in Christchurch

See the flightless birds called Kiwis at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

You'll have today to explore Christchurch at your own pace. After breakfast, take a guided city tour or visit the International Antarctic Center. The museum has a range of interactive experiences—see if you can survive an Antarctic storm, learn what it's like to work on the ice, and get up close to huskies and blue penguins. 

In the afternoon, head to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. Willowbank is home to New Zealand's largest and most accessible Kiwi viewing area. After observing these rare flightless birds, explore one of the country's most complete selections of native and introduced wildlife in natural bush surroundings. Then have dinner in a restaurant downtown and relax at your hotel before traveling onward tomorrow.

Day 3: Drive to Lake Tekapo, Explore

Stop at a historic church perched on the lake's edge

Today you'll make a three-hour drive to Lake Tekapo, celebrated for its turquoise water surrounded by snowcapped mountains and green hills. The route takes you through the picturesque Canterbury Plains, and you can make a stop in Geraldine, a small known for its cafés, shops, and restaurants. Continuing on, you'll pass through the aptly named Beautiful Valley. The last part of the drive ascends Burkes Pass, bringing you into Mackenzie Country's basin and the picturesque town of Lake Tekapo.

Once you arrive, hike or drive to the Mount John University Observatory, located just outside of town, to breathe in the purest air in New Zealand. Visit the Church of the Good Shepherd, perched on the lake's edge, or stop by nearby thermal pools for a refreshing dip. Swimming in the glacial lake known as Willow Bay is also possible. 

Day 4: Free Day in Lake Tekapo

Look for moonlight reflections on Lake Tekapo
Today is a free day to explore this gorgeous region and its many outdoor activities. After dark, return to the observatory to learn about the southern sky using telescopes. Your guide will point out the Milky Way, Southern Cross, Alpha-Centauri, and Sirius, one of the brightest visible stars. You'll also see star clusters, planets, nebulae, clouds of gas and dust, and distant galaxies. 

Day 5: Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook Village, Explore

Take in the views on your way to Aoraki / Mount Cook

Leave Lake Tekapo this morning and start driving to Lake Pukaki, about 30 minutes away. From the lake's shore, take in spectacular views of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. You may be able to spot Aoraki / Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand, in the distance. This area has been a hotspot for mountaineering ever since Sir Edmund Hillary practiced his climbing skills here to prepare for the trek up Mount Everest.

When you arrive at Aoraki / Mount Cook, a range of outdoor activities await. In the afternoon, consider kayaking on a glacial lake, hiking in the foothills, or taking a scenic ride in a helicopter. 

Day 6: Drive to Dunedin, Explore

Moeraki Boulders
Detour to see the Moeraki Boulders
Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Depart Aoraki / Mount Cook this morning and travel south to Dunedin, about a 4.5-hour drive. Along the way, you'll pass Twizel, a filming location for "The Lord of the Rings," and Ōmarama, the gliding capital of the country. Stop for a break at the Wrinkly Ram Café, which features sheep-shearing demonstrations, before continuing through the Waitaki Valley

The last section of the drive takes you down the coast to Moeraki, where you'll make a slight detour to see the Moeraki Boulders, a collection of huge spherical boulders scattered across the beach. Arrive in Dunedin and settle into your hotel before taking your first look at the city's Edwardian and Scottish heritage buildings in The Octagon or the city center. You'll quickly understand why Dunedin is nicknamed "Edinburgh of the South."

Day 7: Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour & Penguin Place

Take a cruise and scenic bus ride on the Otago Peninsula

Today you'll explore the beautiful Otago Peninsula on a guided tour. The itinerary includes a cruise on the Otago Harbour and a visit to Penguin Place, home to rare yellow-eyed penguins. Finish with a scenic bus tour of the high road on the Otago Peninsula, marveling at the windswept coastal scenery and spotting vibrantly colored birds along the way. Return to Dunedin for dinner and another overnight. 

Day 8: Drive to Te Anau Island, Explore

Lake Te Anau
Chill out with a peaceful sunset over Lake Te Anau
Leave Dunedin this morning and drive 3.5 hours to Te Anau, the gateway to New Zealand's UNESCO-listed Fiordland National Park. Drive through the countryside toward the coastline and make a brief detour at Kaka Point, with its views of craggy cliffs and torrid waves, before continuing to Te Anau. Dramatic mountain peaks surround the lakeside town and are the base for visiting Milford Sound / Piopiotahi. It's also an access point for three famed hiking trails: Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler.

Day 9: Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Cruise

Take a two-hour scenic cruise on Milford Sound / Piopiotahi 
Make the gorgeous drive today on the iconic Milford Road to get to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, where you'll begin a scenic cruise. You'll see waterfalls tumbling down high cliffs, mountains rising straight out of the sea, fur seals, and possibly dolphins. The captain will even get close enough so that you can feel the full force of the powerful 15,000-year-old Stirling Falls. After enjoying the two-hour cruise, walk on the stunning Key Summit before returning to Te Anau.

Day 10: Explore the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, Drive to Queenstown

See distinct rock formations as you boat through the Te Anau Glowworm Caves

Today you'll visit the Glowworm Caves to observe the region's famous glowworms in total darkness! The guided excursion starts with a cruise across Lake Te Anau on a catamaran. You'll enter the 12,000-year-old underground cave network, where your guide will point out whirlpools, intricate rock formations, and an underground waterfall. Then board a small boat to glide through the darkness, spotting thousands of glowworms on the cave walls and ceiling.

After the tour, hit the road for a two-hour drive from Te Anau to Queenstown, passing through Mossburn, the deer capital of New Zealand. Continue on through the Southland countryside before arriving at the adventure capital of New Zealand. Check into your hotel and have a relaxing evening. 

Day 11: Discover Queenstown, Cruise & Farm Tour

Spend a day exploring the adventure capital of the world

Today you're free to explore Queenstown at your own pace. Many adrenaline-inducing activities are available in the area, like paragliding and bungee jumping. You could walk, jog, or bike around Lake Wakatipu for a more relaxed start to the day. Then make the trip to Macetown to learn more about New Zealand's 19th-century gold rush. Or, go on a wine-tasting tour around the region's best boutique vineyards.

In the afternoon, take a cruise across the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Wakatipu aboard the historic TSS Earnslaw. Stop at the Walter Peak High Country Farm for a gourmet meal served lakeside amid striking alpine scenery. You'll have a chance to walk around the gardens and see a sheep-shearing demonstration before returning to town.

Day 12: Free Day in Queenstown 

Ride the Skyline Gondola for views over Queenstown
Take more time to enjoy Queenstown today. One essential activity is riding the Skyline Gondola, one of the steepest cable car lifts in the southern hemisphere. You'll ascend over 1,400 feet (450 m) to Bob's Peak for panoramic views of the Remarkables, Coronet Peak, and bright-blue Lake Wakatipu. After admiring the views, ride the peak's two hilltop luge tracks. When you're ready, the gondola will take you back down the mountain—or you can hike back down.

Day 13: Drive to Wānaka, Explore

Spend an hour or two in Arrowtown, a historic town on the way to Wānaka

Leave Queenstown at your leisure and make the one-hour drive to Wānaka. Take your time and enjoy the route. The Otago region and its Arrow River were the sites of gold fields in the 1800s, drawing miners from Europe and China to the area during the gold rush. A good place to stop is Arrowtown, about a 20-minute drive from Queenstown, where you can learn about the area's history.

Established during the height of the gold rush, Arrowtown grew from a settlement to a town. Early pioneers built cottages, shops, hotels, and churches—some of which are still visible today. Walk along the Arrow River, passing historical buildings that reveal the area's past. Visit the Historic Arrowtown Chinese Settlement and the Lakes District Museum to learn more about the area's history. From Arrowtown, continue the trip to Wānaka, the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park.

Day 14: Lake Wānaka Cruise & Island Nature Walk

Moh Waho Island on Lake Wanaka
Moh Waho Island is one of five islands on Lake Wānaka

After breakfast, explore Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve—one of five islands on Lake Wānaka—accessible via a 35-minute boat ride. Home to native New Zealand wildlife, the island was also home to early shipbuilders. An old stone wharf and hut still stand on the eastern side of the island. Another notable feature is Arethusa Pool, a small lake on the island. See the best views from the top of Tyrwhitt Peak; you'll also enjoy panoramic views of Lake Wānaka and the surrounding glacial mountains and valleys. Take a break for tea or coffee before heading back down to the boat for the return trip.

Day 17: Discover Mount Aspiring National Park

Choose your own adventures in the park, like hiking and kayaking

Enjoy a full day in Mount Aspiring National Park today, a natural wonder surrounded by ski areas and vineyards producing some of the best pinot noirs in New Zealand. Today's activities depend on your interests. Hike or bike in the national park, try rock climbing, and go wine tasting at the Rippon Valley Vineyard, considered one of the most beautiful vineyard sites in the world. You could also go on a kayaking excursion or venture to nearby Rob Roy Glacier

Day 16: Free Day in Wānaka

Challenge yourself at Puzzling World in Wānaka

Continue exploring the great outdoors today or visit an attraction in town. Puzzling World, with its multi-level outdoor maze and optical illusion rooms, is a fun way to spend a day or afternoon in another dimension. Experiment with holograms, see the filming techniques used in "The Lord of the Rings" to warp actors' heights, and experience different realities in the illusion room. 

Day 17: Drive to Franz Josef / Waiau Glacier, Explore

Franz Joseph Glacier at sunset
Arrive at Franz Joseph Glacier in time for sunset

Today you'll make the four-hour drive from Wānaka to Franz Josef / Waiau. The route follows the shores of Lakes Wānaka and Hawea before you enter the village of Makarora and Mount Aspiring National Park. Descend into the national park toward the Haast Pass, observing crashing rivers and waterfalls around every corner. Crossing the Haast River, you'll officially be on the wild West Coast. Fox Glacier welcomes you to the glacier region, and Franz Josef / Waiau is just another 45-minute drive. A wonderful way to experience the glaciers is with a scenic flight or glacier hike.

Day 18: Drive to Punakaiki, Explore

Pancake Rocks - Punakaiki
Punakaiki's Pancake Rocks are an otherworldly sight
Make your way from Franz Josef / Waiau to Punakaiki today, a route of about three hours. You'll drive north through small towns, including Hari Hari, where Guy Menzies landed during his effort to become the first person to fly solo across the Tasman. The craft and gift stores in Hokitika offer a great range of locally made souvenirs, or take a short hike along the Hokitika Gorge. Just south of Greymouth, Shantytown is a replica gold rush town with intriguing displays from yesteryear. Continue to Punakaiki and take time to explore its paths and rock formations before arriving at your hotel.

Day 19: Drive to Hanmer Springs, Explore

 Drive through the alpine landscapes near Lewis Pass

Outstanding scenery awaits you on the last full day of the trip. The 3.5-hour drive takes you from Punakaiki to Hamner Springs along the Lewis Pass, the least traveled of the three main routes over the Southern Alps. Stop at Maruia Springs, a Japanese-style resort with natural hot springs. Take some time to soak in the outdoor hot pools before continuing to the alpine village of Hanmer Springs, a favorite holiday destination for New Zealanders for many years.

Once you arrive, relax at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa or go for a hike in the alpine scenery. You could also go boating on the Waiau River, horseback riding, or mountain biking. In winter, of course, there's world-class skiing. Whatever activity you choose, enjoy your last afternoon and evening in this spectacular setting.

Day 20: Drive to Christchurch, Depart New Zealand

Until next time, Christchurch!

Your New Zealand adventure has come to an end. After breakfast, make the two-hour drive to Christchurch to return your car and catch your flight home. Safe travels!

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to New Zealand? Check out these other New Zealand itineraries, explore other ways to spend 20 days in New Zealand, or discover the best time to visit New Zealand.


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Map of New Zealand Self-Drive Loop in the South Island - 20 Days
Map of New Zealand Self-Drive Loop in the South Island - 20 Days